Asian labourers toil to build UAE for meagre returns

DUBAI — Construction worker B. Lal arrived in the affluent Gulf Arab city of Dubai more than a year ago, hoping to end the grinding poverty of his family in India.

Today, he says wants to commit suicide.

Lal, who did not want to give his full name, says he has not been paid for over six months although he works double shifts in the searing heat. When he complained to his employer, he says, he was met with indifference.

“Nobody listens to us. Back home, I don’t have any money for my wife and children. I don’t have money over here either. How can I go back to my country and show my face? I won’t go back. I’ll die here. I’ll kill myself over here,” he said, sweat beading his brow.

Lal’s plight is shared by many of the hundreds of thousands of Asian labourers who fill this construction-mad city hoping for a better life, only to face unpaid wages and squalid living conditions in a country flush with petrodollars.

Newspapers often report suicides among the men who toil long hours, sometimes through the night, for an average monthly wage of around $100. Dubai’s wide highways lined with glistening skyscrapers, luxury seafront hotels and modern shopping malls stocked with designer goods are a world apart from the cramped, bare-bones labour camps the workers call home.

In March, hundreds of workers rioted near the site of the $1 billion Burj Dubai, billed as the world’s tallest tower, to demand higher wages and payment of overtime salaries — just the latest in a series of protests over the last year.

Human rights groups have accused the government of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), an oil-producing Gulf state that includes Dubai, of turning a blind eye to the non-payment of wages, lack of medical care and sub-standard housing for workers who form the backbone of an economy lifted by high oil prices.

Foreigners, including labourers and middle-and high-income executives, make up more than 85 per cent of the four million people in Dubai, the UAE’s tourism and trading hub. “We have found that there is a systematic and widespread exploitation of workers by their employers, and the government has a lot to do to address this problem,” said Hadi Ghaemi, Middle East and North Africa analyst with US-based group Human Rights Watch (HRW).

“One of the big problems is that there is no minimum wage in the UAE. The government also needs to hold the companies responsible for their actions. We see impunity, we don’t see them being punished for breaking the law,” he added.

Construction firms sometimes cut corners during lean periods between projects by holding back wages from vulnerable foreign workers, who are too afraid of deportation to complain.

HRW has urged the European Union and the United States not to sign free trade deals with the UAE until it ends mistreatment of foreign workers. The United States has urged the UAE and other Gulf states to amend workers’ rights laws in order to qualify for a proposed free trade pact.

The UAE government has vowed to set up unions for workers, penalise firms that do not pay their employees on time and crack down on abuses. But it has also threatened to deport workers who start protests.

Brigadier Said Matar Ben Bileila, chairman of the Dubai government’s new permanent committee of labour affairs, is well aware of the workers’ plight.

But he lays a lot of the blame on the labourers and their governments for not protecting the men from recruiting “sharks”.

Firms in the UAE employ agencies in Asia to find workers and many men say they pay thousands of dollars to secure jobs.

“Most of the labourers who come here have already been bled dry by recruiting companies who take huge fees, so they come here already heavily in debt,” Bileila said. “That is not the fault of the UAE government or the employer, but the problem lies with the Asian governments and the workers themselves, they have to deal with these agents that are like a mafia.” Bileila said the UAE offered foreign labourers a golden opportunity to better their lives.

“We know how these labourers live at home. They don’t have houses but here they get a room, air-conditioning, a kitchen, three clean meals a day, transportation and a salary that is 10 times better than what they would make at home,” he said.

But for Lal and other workers, harsh conditions back home might be better than the so-called Dubai dream.

“In India, there is unemployment and poverty and here it is exactly the same situation. I came here for wealth and to better my kids’ education and life, but in the end I have nothing.”

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